Couch potato contentment

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Americans know exercise is good for their health. Yet many are overweight, out-of-shape couch potatoes — and that seems to be just fine with a lot of them, suggests a new nationwide fitness survey.

Seventy percent of respondents said they were completely or somewhat satisfied with their physical health and 66 percent said the same about their physical appearance, according to the survey, commissioned by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), an industry trade group in Boston.

And just over half (52 percent) of the more than 1,400 people polled last September said they were generally satisfied with the amount of exercise they get.

But federal health statistics show that most Americans aren't getting very much: Two-thirds are not physically active on a regular basis and a quarter get practically no exercise at all.

Sedentary lifestyles are a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic, and a full two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese.

Expanding waistlines the accepted norm?
The findings suggest that while most Americans are overweight and sedentary, many of them aren't all that bothered by it, says Bill Howland, director of research at IHRSA.

“I wonder if Americans walk around and see other people who are overweight and not physically active and that’s becoming an accepted norm,” he says. “That’s alarming if that is in fact happening.”

Still, Americans do know exercise is good for them, results indicated. Eighty-seven percent of those polled said they believe exercise plays a major role in health.

“There’s a big disconnect,” says Howland.

“We’ve got to get the behavior to match the beliefs,” he says.

Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit fitness group in San Diego, says getting Americans moving is clearly easier said than done.

“We’re just passively sitting back and letting this inactive lifestyle become the accepted way,” he says.

Part of the problem, according to Bryant, is that Americans view physical activity as an "event" — one game of tennis or one trip to the gym — rather than "the manner in which one lives."

Our great-grandparents didn't go jogging and take aerobics classes and yet they didn't have the weight problems of today either, he notes. A big difference is that they were more active throughout the day.

Technology that makes our lives easier — everything from riding mowers to computers — can also make us more sedentary, Bryant says. (Wearing a pedometer to count steps is one way to become more aware of daily activity, he says. Health experts often advise aiming for 10,000 steps each day.)

The danger is that people frustrated with failed weight-loss efforts will just give up because they feel it's hopeless, Bryant says.

Abracadabras and Sitcom Skeptics
Indeed, some people appear to be waiting for that magic bullet for weight loss.

The survey, which categorized respondents into six fitness profiles, identified 17 percent as "Abracadabras": people who are out of shape and would prefer to take a magic pill to slim down.

“I firmly believe that if exercise could be packaged in a pill it would be the most widely prescribed pill the world’s ever seen,” Bryant says. (Don't hold your breath though.)

Another 12 percent of survey respondents were classified as "Sitcom Skeptics," people who pride themselves on not falling for the fitness craze. Thirteen percent were "Woulda-Shouldas," who understand the importance of exercise but still don't do it as often as they should.

On a positive note, 15 percent of respondents were "Conscientious Preventors," those who exercise regularly to stave off health problems and 15 percent were "Balanced Holistics," who exercise for their health and well-being.

Another 28 percent fell into the category of "Social Competitors," who enjoy group activities for the fun and comraderie. Many would exercise more if they had the time.

The survey also found that people who belong to gyms are more likely than those who don't to be active — physically and socially — and to say they are "in control" of their lives.

While the number of health clubs across the country is increasing, the survey offered some insights into why some people won't step foot in them: 48 percent of respondents believe health clubs are mostly for people who are already physically fit, 43 percent say clubs are mostly for young people, and 35 percent say they are just pick-up joints.

Smart Fitness appears the second Tuesday of each month.